Horseback riding is incorporated into the therapy process in order to address very specific therapeutic goals related to the client’s ability to regulate his or her physiological responses to stress and their accompanying emotional states. Studies show that brain functionality in people who have experienced trauma such as abuse, neglect, combat, or natural disasters, is often compromised due to disorganization and/or lack of neurological connections in the brain. Trauma victims often struggle with emotion and impulse control, which results in the inability to appropriately handle even minimal stress. TF-EAP utilizes the rhythmic, patterned, repetitive, bilateral movement inherent in riding a horse to increase and reorganize the connections in the brain, thereby increasing the brain’s ability for emotion and impulse control. The horse is able to provide the rhythm required to effectively heal the traumatized brain until the client is able to independently provide that rhythm. In effect, clients passively learn to self-regulate through the use of the rhythmic, patterned, repetitive movement of the horse.
Music is often incorporated into Rhythmic Riding to capitalize on the sensory integration it provides. When we tap into the areas of the brain responsible for the senses, we tap into and activate the area of the brain responsible for trauma. Rhythmic Riding not only activates the sub-cortical regions of the brain providing passive self-regulation, it also requires the client to problem solve (e.g., ride in rhythm with the music; direct the horse along an established path), thus activating the areas of the brain responsible for planning and impulse control. Therefore Rhythmic Riding offers the ideal conditions to establish and strengthen the cross-brain neuronal connections necessary for self-regulation.
Clients are also taught specific skills to enable them to self-regulate in stressful or emotional situations. However, unlike office-based counseling sessions in which the therapist discusses with the client how to use the learned skills in more stressful situations, riding provides a medium through which clients can learn and practice these skills under the guidance of the therapy team. During Rhythmic Riding, horses provide a mildly stressful, yet safe and predictable, environment in which to practice these skills. Before the horse will appropriately control herself, the client must first be in control of his/her own thoughts, emotions, and actions. Riding therefore affords clients the opportunity to practice skills that will help them control the chaos inside them when they can’t control the chaos around them. Many clients are unable to do deeper, insight-oriented therapeutic work until they are able to bring their level of arousal to a place that allows them to gain and retain insight, and benefit from higher-level learning. This level of regulation is most profoundly experienced and learned on the back of a horse.